When I began thinking about sharing a Christmas baking recipe my Brisbane-based friend Gillian Bell of Gillian Bell Cake came to mind. I thought, "I bet Gillian has some great Christmas recipes." When I approached her to share one of her favourite recipes, her response had me laughing, 'I’d love to contribute to your blog with a recipe, and an interview. I make Christmas cakes, Christmas pudding and mince pies every year (I’m a bit of a traditionalist and a Christmasophile). For my mince pies, I make my own mincemeat and pastry as well, and always bake them on the evening of Christmas Eve after I’ve been to carol service.' I knew Gillian would be perfect.
Gillian and I met at a Daily Plenty Workshop in June, after following each other on Instagram for years (see her beautiful cakes here, all photography in this post by Gillian). I am thrilled that Gillian has been a customer of ours for a long time. Sitting around the campfire, after a superb meal by chef Sarah Glover, Gillian had a group of us in awe as she told us about emigrating to Australia with her family when she was 15-years-old.
"When we arrived in Australia we lived in an army-like hut in an immigrant's camp in South Australia. I think my mother laid down for two years, it was so hot. I was the fourth child of eight children, including two sets of twins. We had nothing, but we count ourselves lucky that we had lots of love and never wanted for anything in that department. Christmas was a very special time because it was one of the few times a year for treats."
Being part of a big family gave Gillian great responsibility to chip in and help in the kitchen. She remembers being able to bake before she went to school. She learnt to be self-sufficient and gained wonderful life skills that have been a constant in her life.
When she was old enough Gillian started saving her wages to buy plane tickets, travelling back to Britain, as well as Europe, and Asia. "I am always happiest on an adventure," she says. This nurtured a great appreciation for the cuisine of other countries.
Working as a social worker, Gillian took her experience of sharing food in other people's homes overseas, and encouraged refugee families displaced by the Vietnam War to seek familiar comfort amidst the chaos, sourcing ingredients, cooking together, and sharing food.
Baking is something Gillian turned to herself when her family experienced a trauma some 20 years ago. "We lost a number of members of our family in a short space of time and baking kept us going. It is a thread that has been there through my life and ties me to people I loved and lost. That allowed us to turn another page and eventually baking came to the fore and took prominence in my business life. "
Gillian's wedding cakes are incredibly special, taking the physical form of a story gathered from each of the couples who engage her. She says it is important that the cakes look lovely, but it is the stories that are the essence of her cakes. She starts with conversations with family members about their family background and heritage, favourite ingredients, gardens and recipes, triggering treasured food memories.
"A wedding is a very special occasion and the creation of the cake is symbolic of the families coming together," Gillian says.
Some of the ingredients for Gillian's cakes come from her own garden, whether it is her four metre by three metre postage stamp garden in Brisbane or her nearby allotment where she grows citrus, elderflower, strawberries, roses, violets, violas, pansies, scented geraniums and lavender. She uses her harvest to lay down flavours, infusing milk or cream, or making her own flavoured sugars.
When it comes to Christmas, Gillian makes Christmas cake, pudding, and mince pies, gathering organic or locally grown ingredients throughout the year. When she returns from Church and carol singing on Christmas Eve, the house starts to take on an air of Christmas magic. "Lights twinkle on the real Christmas tree, and there might be a bit of Bing crooning in the background, as I make the mince pies and the house starts to smell of cooking spices and pastry." Gillian and her husband Stephen share a drink and the first mince pies fresh out of the oven. Gillian kindly shares her mince pies recipe below. If you'd like to hear more of Gillian, especially her distinctive English accent, have a listen to My Open Kitchen's podcast here.
My homemade Christmas mince pies by Gillian Bell
I like to make bite-sized mince tarts so I use a mini cupcake or mini muffin baking tin. I also use a wooden pastry tamper which is the perfect kitchen tool for making tiny pies or tarts with enriched pastry.
For your fruit mince filling, you can choose any of your favourite dried fruits. My recipe is fairly traditional, but feel free to explore different combinations making up 1kg, until you find your own favourite. I use Australian-grown, organic raisins, currants, sultanas and prunes, and dates. I cut the larger fruits up with my kitchen scissors to about the size of a sultana.
Place all the cut dried fruits in a bowl and pour over some hot, black tea (I just make myself a pot of tea). Cover the bowl with cling film and leave the fruits to soak for a few days in the fridge or in a cool spot. A few days later, I drain the excess tea off the fruit and add a couple of tablespoons of an orange flora muscat to the fruit and toss it through. If you’d prefer not to use alcohol, leave out this step. Or you may prefer to soak your fruit completely in alcohol. It’s up to you. The fruits should now be plump and fragrant.
When I’m ready to bake the pies, I add a small jar of homemade apple sauce to the bowl and stir it all up to coat the fruit evenly.If you don’t have any apple sauce, you could grate a whole apple or two into the mixture, or add some orange juice. But don’t make it too wet. I then zest a whole orange and two lemons into the bowl and stir again to combine everything evenly. I prefer the fresh taste and lift that zest gives to the mix, rather than prepared candied peel. I also don’t use any suet in my filling as the pastry is already enriched, so this recipe is suitable for vegetarians. Keep the fruit mixture covered in the fridge until you are ready to make up your pies.
For the pastry you will need:
Place all the ingredients into a processor and pulse until combined and the mixture comes together in a ball. Take roughly half your dough and place it between two sheets of cling film. Roll the pastry dough flat between the sheets of cling film, then wrap the corners up so the pastry is enclosed and can’t dry out. Place it flat on a shelf in the refrigerator or freezer for at least 30mins. With the remainder of the ball of dough, wrap it tightly in cling film and chill also. There’s no need to roll this portion of dough out. Place your baking tin in the freezer or fridge also.
Take the ball of dough from the fridge, along with your baking tin. Break off small pieces of dough, roughly the size of a small cherry tomato, and place one in each of the cavities. There’s no need to prepare the tin as the mixture contains sufficient fat.
Choose the end of the tamper that’s closest to the size of your baking tin. Place a bowl of flour close at hand and plunge the end of your tamper into the flour to make sure it is well coated. Then press the tamper onto the centre of one of the small pieces of dough that you placed in the tin, and press down firmly and continuously, until the pastry lines the cavity. Remove the tamper gently. Dust it again with flour and move to the next piece of dough. If you struggle to fill the cavity, or the pastry lining is too thin and tears, it means you just need to make the small ball of dough for each pie a little larger. It may take a few attempts to get it just right, but if it doesn’t work at first, just pull the pastry out, roll it back up and start again. I’ve been doing it long enough now to know that I need 17gms of dough to fill each cavity in my tin. You’ll work yours out too:) If your pastry starts to stick to the tamper it’s because either you are not dusting your tamper well enough with flour, or your pastry is getting warm and becoming sticky. In our summer months, it is a challenge, and the best solution is to put it all back in the freezer until the pastry has firmed up before trying again. Repeat until your tin is completely filled. Place the filled tin in the freezer and move to the next step.
Take the rolled piece of dough out of the fridge and out of the cling film. This piece will be for the lids of your pies. Lightly dust your rolling surface with flour and roll the pastry even more until you reach the desired thickness. Choose a small circular cutter that is about the right diameter for your pies and cut out your lids.
Remove the chilled tin from the freezer and fill each pastry case with your mixture. Place a lid on each pie and gently press so the pastry lid adheres to its pastry case. Place the completed tin back in the freezer. Now, if you are ready to bake your pies, turn your oven on to 190c. If you plan to bake your pies at a later date, simply place your tin in a large freezer bag and seal. Then freeze them until you are ready to bake. The pies can go straight from the freezer into a hot oven, there’s no need to defrost.
Bake your pies at 190c for about 15-20mins. Just keep your eye on them and remove them from the oven when they are golden brown. Leave them in the tin until they have cooled enough for you to handle the tin with your bare hands, but the pies are still warm. Remove them carefully from the tin with the aid of a small, pointed knife. I like to simply dust them with icing sugar and serve at room temperature.